One of the richest tall tales in climbing is the story of the first ascent of ‘El Gavilan.’ When a team of adventure climbers went to rebolt the largely forgotten route in 2019, a filmmaker joined them.
One night in 1997, climbers Jeff Jackson and Benji Fink cowered inside a dark hole at the base of a limestone cliff situated 1,000 feet above the Mexican chaparral. Jackson, or “El Jefe,” remembered shivering in fear that night, huddled closely against Fink. Outside, their binoculars revealed that a legion of slender beings with alarmingly large heads approached across the desert. From the climbers’ vantage, their progress appeared inextricable.
It’s hard to overstate how alone the two men were: the only way to get to this formation, locally called “La Popa,” was to find a hermit named Luciano who lived in a remote cave with his burros. Jackson later said the old man’s skin was like that of a lizard, and it turned out only he could adequately navigate the labyrinthine cactus fields that choked the baked earth surrounding the cliff.
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Now, though, they were here — to their acute dismay. Local garbage collectors at the distant climbing paradise of El Potrero Chico had told them of “hombritos verdes,” little green men, who sometimes ran alongside their truck at night when their work compelled them to traverse the macabre highways near this wasteland.
But Jackson and Fink didn’t count on encountering so many of them at such close range. Huddled in the crevice behind the burden of their gear, they clutched at their liquefying resolve.
Tomorrow, they would start up the wall and establish a leading-edge big wall sport climb called “El Gavilan” (The Hawk) — they hoped.
How a Sport Climb Becomes a Legend
How’s that for a first ascent story? The climb did come to be, and it was a gem; “El Gavilan” comprised 900 feet of consistent 5.12/13 climbing.
Inexplicable phenomena, even aliens, accompanied the first ascensionists the grueling way up. The morning after the restless night in the hovel, they noted the figures on the plain had turned into horses.
Gallagher and Jackson’s route lay quiet for 20 years. Then, after a flurry of visits in the late 2010s, including one by Alex Honnold, Bronwyn Hodgins led a cohort of adventure climbers in an effort to rebolt it.
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The route needed it: nonrated hardware dangled sparsely over the wall, pinned to it by deteriorating expansion bolts.
“It was pretty rough,” expedition photographer and filmmaker Savannah Cummins said. “Rusty bolts with chain link too small to fit a locking carabiner through. We’d hang on it — with some ok backup we rigged somewhere else — and think, ‘ok, I guess I’m trusting my life to this!'”
The effort took two seasons and countless days hanging over the featureless expanse below. It also required substantial logistics, including finding a good way to the top, surviving the unrelenting desert exposure, and an assist from the American Safe Climbing Association (ASCA) in the form of hardware.
Then the little flickering green lights appeared on the wall, and disembodied whispers started filtering in over the walkie-talkies.
‘El Gavilan,’ the Movie
Want to check it out? Then get to the American Alpine Club (AAC) Craggin Classic, which features six dates from September to November at stops from Rumney, N.H., to Smith Rock, Ore.
“It’s well-known and well-established that strange things go on in that desert at night,” Jackson asserts in the film.
Only one way to find out, folks.